Rethinking consumerism will not only boost environmental protection – it will also help to tackle the crisis in young people’s mental health.
What if the solution to the mental health crisis facing young people is the same as tackling environmental degradation? That solution is at hand – moving beyond consumerism.
The environmental damage of consuming resources at the current rate is well known. Across the world, 70% more resources are consumed every year than the sustainable rate, driving the pollution, climate change, and ecosystem damage that are documented in evermore distressing detail(1).
Evidence about the mental health and wellbeing impact of consumerism is also building, and it makes similarly painful reading. And yet consumerism remains one of society’s few unquestioned doctrines. We’re prepared to have lengthy debates about many complex issues, from EU membership to wearing religious symbols at work. But whether society should keep consuming at a rate which undermines the natural environment – and is damaging young people’s mental health – is perhaps just too challenging a topic to confront. Maybe this is why projects to move society beyond consumerism receive the least funding from environment sector grant makers.
When faced with an economic downturn, politicians tell people to go out and spend on the high street as though their lives depended on it. The opposite is true. Society is dependent on lessening environmental damage, and it transpires that personal wellbeing is also boosted by breaking away from the consumerist pressure to buy, buy, buy.
Consumption and wellbeing
Social scientists have known for years that young people whose ‘operating system’ aims to accumulate ever more stuff (trainers, houses, jewellery, cars, bags, mobile phones) are less happy than those who prioritise heartier pursuits(2).
The traits of teens reporting higher wellbeing include spending time with friends and family, hobbies that expand the mind, finding a purpose inside or outside of work, exercising more, spending more time outdoors, and active community involvement(3).
Buying stuff of course plays an important role in people’s lives, but wellbeing studies illustrate that the healthiest balance in life involves a lot more than shopping(4). Materialistic tendencies are linked to decreased life satisfaction, happiness, vitality and social cooperation, and increases in depression, anxiety, racism and antisocial behaviour(5).
With young people exposed to more advertising than ever before(6), including social media(7) through which their friends might be being paid to promote that new jacket they’re wearing, shouldn’t the impact of consumerism on wellbeing be debated?
Is consumerism one of the reasons why mental health issues are on the rise in England? According to the Varkey Foundation, British millennials have the second worst mental wellbeing in the world, second only to Japan(8). Depression rates have doubled in a decade with as many as 24% of girls aged 14, and 9% of boys of the same age in the UK experiencing symptoms of depression(9). One in five young women between the ages of 16 and 24 report having self-harmed(10) and 91% of teachers report increased levels of mental illness in children and young people(11).
Materialism and self-esteem
Consumerism thrives on the importance of appearance, as promoted by adverts, music videos and social media. Alongside wellbeing experts, I find it hard to imagine that this influence does not contribute to the mental health crisis. Charity YoungMinds explains that “social media puts pressure on girls to live their lives in the public domain, to present a personal ‘brand’ from a young age, and to seek reassurance in the form of likes and shares”(13) . A Girl Guides survey found that 42% of 11-16 year olds are “ashamed about the way they look” (most of the time or often) and the percentage of girls and young women aged 7 to 21 saying they are “happy with how they look” dropped from 73% to only 61% over five years(14).
UNICEF reports that those from low-income families may be particularly vulnerable to marketing efforts(15), with poorer 11-17 year olds being more materialistic than their wealthier counterparts(16), which appears to be associated with lower self-esteem among impoverished teens(17).
The long shadow of consumerism
Children living in the UK’s consumerist society are by no means the only children affected by the system that drives demand for goods. Consumerism casts a dark shadow on young people’s lives on the other side of the planet. For example, an estimated 20,000 children work in mines retrieving mica, the mineral that adds an iridescent shimmer to some eyeshadows and blushers(18).
I believe that this upsetting situation, at home and abroad, requires urgent action, and there is a major cause for hope among this bleak picture. The hope springs from the strength and simplicity of the post-consumerist destination. A life where young people experience less pressure to buy stuff and look good, and feel free to spend more time doing things that really make them happy, is also a life that preserves the ecosystems that underpin a prosperous society.
A bright post-consumerist future
To reach a post-consumerist society, the environment sector could lead by transforming the conversation about consumption. The real value to society lies in consuming less physical things, not just handling waste better or building the circular economy(19). It’s hard to envisage a sure-fire scenario for planetary sustainability in which the current level of consumption of physical goods is maintained, no matter what level of renewable energy and material recycling exists. That is before factoring in the increased consumption of materials by the growing middle-class of economically growing countries such as India and China(20).
The good news is that the studies of materialistic lifestyles show that people who rely less on physical materials for happiness (after base needs are met(21)) are generally happier(22). Consuming less stuff isn’t about going backwards, or making a sacrifice – an accusation often levelled at the environment sector(23). Consuming less is about focusing on what really makes young people happy. When it comes to consumption levels in a wealthy society, it appears that less really is more.
Global Action Plan is working with young people to challenge the pressure to consume, highlight examples of lower impact lifestyles, and set their own vision for what a happier, more sustainable future might look like.
We are equipping the carers of young people to help in the efforts to build greater resilience to our toxic culture of looks, likes and shopping. We will guide them in how to teach young people strategies for a genuinely happier life.
We will also enable and provide the forums for young people to demand a culture that is good for them and good for the planet and call out where they see exploitation and manipulation by marketeers.
1.Overshoot Day. (2017). “Past Earth Overshoot Days”. [Online] Acccessed at: http://www.overshootday.org/newsroom/past-earth-overshoot-days/ (on the 01/10/17)
2. Dittmar, H., Bond, R., and Hurst, M. (2014). The relationship between materialism and personal well-being: A meta-analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(5), pp.879–924.
3. Kasser, T., & Ryan, R.M. (1996). Further examining the American dream: Differential correlates of intrinsic and extrinsic goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22: 280-287. Mabsout, R. (2015) Mindful capability. Ecological Economics, 112, pp. 86-97. Zhang, J.W. et al., (2014). An occasion for unselfing: Beautiful nature leads to prosociality. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 37, pp.61–72. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494413000893 [Accessed September 18, 2017].
4. Zhang, J.W. et al., 2014. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t: Material buyers are not happier from material or experiential consumption. Journal of Research in Personality, 50(1).;
Tsang, J.A. et al., 2014. Why are materialists less happy? The role of gratitude and need satisfaction in the relationship between materialism and life satisfaction. Personality and Individual Differences, 64, pp.62–66. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2014.02.009.
Sheldon, K.M. and Lyubomirsky, S. (2006) Achieving sustainable gains in happiness: Change your actions, not your circumstances. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7: 55-86
5. Twenge JM & Kasser (2013) Generational changes in materialism and work centrality, 1976-2007: Associations with temporal changes in societal insecurity and materialistic role modeling. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2013; 39(7):883-897
6. Schor, J. B. 2005. Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture. New York: Scribner
Crompton, T. and Kasser, T. 2010. Human Identity: A Missing Link in Environmental Campaigning. Environment Magazine, 52(4) Jul/Aug 2010. p.27
7. Marketing Week (2018). UK ad market growth to slow in 2018 as digital spend decelerates. [Online] Accessed at: https://www.marketingweek.com/2018/01/31/advertising-spend-slows/ on the (25.04.2018)
8. Broadbent, E. et al., (2017). What The World’s People Think And Feel: Generation Z Global Citizenship Survey. Available at: https://www.varkeyfoundation.org/sites/default/files/Global Young People Report %28digital%29 NEW %281%29.pdf
9. Patalay P & Fitzsimons E. (2017). Mental ill-health among children of the new century: trends across childhood with a focus on age 14. Centre for Longitudinal Studies: London; Royal Society of Public Health, 2017
10. NHS (2016) Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey: Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, England, 2014[Online] Accessed at http://www.nhsconfed.org/news/2016/09/the-adult-psychiatric-morbidity-survey on the (25.04.2018
11. Rosen, R. (2016) The Perfect Generation’: Is the internet undermining young people’s mental health? Parent Zone [Online] accessed at: https://parentzone.org.uk/sites/default/files/The%20Perfect%20Generation%20report.pdf on the (25.04.2018)
13. As quoted in Sanghani, R. article in The Telegraph (16 Mar, 2017). Why are so many of Britain's teen girls struggling with mental health problems? [Online] Accessed at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/health-fitness/body/why-are-so-many-of-britains-teen-girls-struggling-with-mental-he/ (on the 25.04.2018)
14. Girl Guides. (2016). Girls' Attitudes Survey. [online] accessed at https://www.girlguiding.org.uk/social-action-advocacy-and-campaigns/research/girls-attitudes-survey/ (on the 01/10/17)
15. UNICEF (2013). “Research Shows UK Children Caught in Materialistic Trap,” press release, (accessed January 29, 2014). Available at: http://www.unicef.org.uk/Media-centre/Press- releases/Research-shows-UK-children-caught-in-materialistic- trap/.
16. Ibid. Chaplin, L. N., Hill, R. P., & John, D. R. (2014). Poverty and Materialism: A Look at Impoverished Versus Affluent Children. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 33(1). https://doi.org/10.1509/jppm.13.050;
17. Elliott, I. (2016) Poverty and Mental Health: A review to inform the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Anti-Poverty Strategy. London: Mental Health Foundation.
18. SOMO. (2016). Beauty and a Beast: Child Labour in India for Sparkling Cars and Cosmetics. [Online] Accessed at https://www.somo.nl/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Beauty-and-a-Beast.pdf on the 16.02.2017
19. Jackson, T. (2005). Live better by consuming less? Is there a ‘double dividend’ in sustainable consumption? Industrial Ecology 9 (1–2): 19–36.
20. UNEP. (2016). Global Material Flows and Resource Productivity. [Online] Accessed at: https://mahb.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/16-00169_LW_GlobalMaterialFlowsUNEReport_FINAL_160701.pdf (on the 26.04.2018)
21. Kahneman, D. & Deaton, A., (2010) High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(38): 16489–16493. Available at: http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1011492107.
22. Kasser, Tim. (2014). The High Price of Materialism. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
23. Phillips, L. 2015. Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-porn Addicts: A defence of growth, progress, industry and stuff. London: ZeroBooks